Talil sat holding the child on top of the roof while the sun rose. The girl was wrapped in a blanket, still hanging on to sleep. He felt her protuding ribs through the blanket. The wind had started to pick up and sandy desert air was rising from the street below.
The girl had small bones, a child's face, limbs and arms and freckles. Brown ringlets of hair hung in front of her face and wavered like reeds with her breath. The two of them were hidden because the sun had not yet risen but they would have to move soon. He had brought her here despite the danger because it was the only place she could sleep in the shade for awhile before morning. He wanted her to have a little rest before they moved again.
The air was chill but it would not be so for long. From the place where they sat they could see, in the distance, the garden where the bodies were hanging, ropes around their necks, and where in a few hours the villagers would pass through and observe and mumble quietly. There were new executions overnight, stiff bodies dangling from the trees, the last remains of the prostitutes and adulterers the soliders had swept up overnight.
The girl's eyes started to flutter and he jostled her awake. “Have you slept?” he said anxiously. “If you've had your rest it's time to go. Time to move now.” There were scattered noises that meant people would be in the garden sooon.
He wrapped the peasant's cloak over his head and prodded her to standing. The edge of the sun came up behind the mountains in the distance and laid red waves over the desert.
Even in half sleep she was lithe, faster than he. Age had taken the fire from Talil who had once moved like a jaguar. He had been able to pick the pockets of any shopkeeper and fleetly extricate himself, once upon a time, but his joints had aged and the toll of years had limited this.
He was tall and wore a beard and because of his height he bent his head forward as he walked. When he had sat on the town council he had been fat and worn fine things. Now he was rail thin and covered his beard and face with a cloak and tried to appear shorter. His arms had once been muscular and thick but they had wasted and he felt brittle.
He had been part of the council that had elected General Kalid to come to the city during the famine, to restore the old gods, to sweep out corruption. The men had told their wives this was the way back to greatness, back to the old glory. They had trusted Kalid and he had turned out to be a tyrant. After Kalid had begun to burn the farms the best men of the city had gone west to fight him and all of the soliders had died. Then Kalid had come for the city and the families of those who opposed him.
Before the generals had taken the city he had a daughter, a different girl whose name was Elise. She too had been a small thing with tiny bones and big eyes. Elise had been eight when the big horses had rode through the city and the soldiers had come with bayonets. Talil had seen the smoke from the farm and gotten close enough to the house to see the big horses with the purple side saddles that meant the army had come. Purple was the color of the generals, the color of Kalid.
He had watched and hid in horror as the smoke went up from his house. Then Talil had fled to the outskirts and lived in the sewers and begged for scraps because it was the only place he could hide. The outskirts allowed people to be anonymous but it was terrible, squalid living. Every night he had seen the burning house in his dreams and heard the cries of his daughter and wife and wanted to die because he was too weak and done nothing except save himself.
After a month of hiding he had thought of killing himself. It was a sin and he would go to Hell but it was better than the sewer. The city wall had pockets of red flowers that grew between the stones and sent one to death if eaten quickly enough. He had picked all he could find and put them in his pocket. That night he was ready to die and to take the flowers with alcohol. But then he had found the tiny one, sleeping in one of the alleyways outside where the men drank, her bones sticking through her skin, her eyes like Elise. Somehow she had been abandoned, for some unknown reason, placed in a blanket and left outside. She was covered in dirt and bruises and wrapped in a ripped blanket. He had taken her into the place he had found anyway, the creviceway that ran under one of the shops, where there was a little bit of light and warmth and he had let her sleep there while he decided what to do.
Talil did not know what he would do with a tiny girl. He could not support them both. Barely could he even support himself. She was clearly starving. He did not have a plan for what to do next. It was unsafe for him to journey outside the outskirts because he knew the generals would recognize him as being loyal to the Sultan on account of his brown hair and brown eyes. He had contemplated all of this while he had sat and smoked and watched the girl sleep in the torn brown blanket and the fire he had made for them had died. She slept so soundly that he was able to dab her bruises and clean her face without her waking or even moving a muscle.
When she woke that first morning she had eyed him cautiously. But she was too naive to be frightened of him. He smiled at her and offered her a handful of cheese which she ate voraciously.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“I am called Talil,” he said. “I don't mean you any harm.”
The look on her face said she would tolerate him for the moment because of the food and the fire. He would have let her run had she tried to do so. She eyed him with a face that was still innocent. “Are you from the dragons or the ocean?” she asked.
“Do you have a family I can help you find?,” he said.
“My father's gone to fight in the West,” she said. “He'll be home soon. My mother is flying with the pink dragons that circle the city at night on locust wings.”
Her father was almost certainly dead too though it seemed she didn't know this. All the troops that had gone west to fight the generals had died. But better to say nothing. It meant she had no one.
“Who were you staying with while your father fights?” Talil asked.
“My uncle,” she said. “He's called Jaquil. He's a fisherman. Jaquil is the greatest fisherman. He spears the giant pink fish that live in the ocean. He has the biggest spear in the land.”
They sat and watched the fire together. There were no more sticks and it would be cold soon so they would need to move.
It was a day's walk from the outskirts to the city gate because they moved so slowly. They kept their heads down and that night they had slept above the gardens in one of the abandoned rooftops. All night the swinging bodies had creaked against their ropes in the trees. He had listened carefully.
They would go to find the one man who he trusted in the city, a camel merchant named Nikil. He had a business by the northern gate, Talil knew. If they could reach him, he could assist them with camels. And it was a day's ride only to the Marhari oasis. From there the way wasn't clear. But something would emerge for them.
“Do you have a family?” the girl had asked him as they walked together.
“I did,” said Talil. “They're gone now.”
“Did they go to the dragons or the ocean?” she said.
“To one of those,” he said. “Which I am not sure.”
“If they're with the dragons they might know my mother. If they're in the ocean they can be found by Jaquil. He is a great fisherman.”
“I see,” said Talil. “When we meet your famly we must ask them.”
They would see the soliders with the purple shrouds around their necks from time to time and keep to the shadows.
“Why do the soliders live here now?” said the girl.
“I think they did not have enough food where they came from,” said Talil. “Some people feel they have the right to take the food of others when they do not have enough for themselves.”
“Jaquil gets food for all of the women by spearing the giant fish,” she said. “He gathers for everyone. No one goes hungry in our house.”
“I would gladly take some of his fish, when we meet him,” Talil said.
“He would certainly share,” said the girl, and they both laughed quietly. Talil had eaten fish once but it was not common food in the desert country, but sometimes it could be brought in from Marhari. The road to the city edge was long and it was very hot but he enjoyed the company of the brown faced girl and her stories about dragons and locust wings.
The city emptied out to just several small tents closer to the North Gate. He saw the white canvas with the name of Nikil on the side. A branch of olive trees clustered several hundred yards away and he left the girl there with the canteen of water. “Sit quietly,” he said, and walked towards Nikil.
Nikil was a paunchy, fast – talking, balding man of late middle age, wearing a white canvas top that was too tight for his belly. They had served on the council together, a lifetime ago. His hands were dirty with dust and hair.
“My friend Talil!” he said, and Talil relaxed and shook hands with him. It had been five years since they had last seen one another. At least Nikik remembered him.
“My friend,” Talil said. “How is your family?”
“My family thrives, brother,” Nikil said. Talil noticed how white Nikil's teeth were, and he wore a new gold bracelet.
“You must be well,” Talil said. “You carry white teeth and new jewelry.”
Nikil smiled. “The camel business is thriving,” he said. “People are seeing the world, exploring more. Business is good for us. What of you, my friend?”
“I've come with my daughter,” Talil said. “I've come to show her Marhari. Her mother recuperates from illness with her family. So we've taken the journey together. What's the price for a camel?” Elise had been a baby when she had seen Nikil last. So he would not know anything about the girl.
Nikil smiled. “For a friend? No charge. Some I would not trust to care for my animals.” Talil noticed the plump camels, their fat bellies in the desert sun. “I do not trust just anyone,” he said.
He extended the hand to Talil which had been previously buried in a pocket of the canvas top. The hand extended was saddled with a velvet purple glove. Talil looked down on the purple fabric.
There was a moment of pregnant pause. Several of the men attending to the camels had sabres mounted to their waists, and they were big men and certainly served as guards as well as stable hands. There were women there, too, but they looked barely fed and emaciated compared to the men and they wore heavy veils that covered their faces and did not make any eye contact. For a moment Talil almost hesitated but he caught himself and squeezed the gloved hand tightly.
He had not expected Nikil to wear the purple and be a loyalist to the generals. If Nikil suspected Talil's sympathies, though, he said nothing. Instead he smiled through the awkward pause.
Nikil smiled back with the big pearled teeth. “Your daughter, I assume she rides with you, yes?”
Talid and the girl rode the camel that night through the desert even thought it became dark and freezing. The odds were better for them the sooner they reached Marhari.
The girl had been quiet for most of the ride. But the moon was overhead and she looked up at him.
“What will we do when we reach the lake?” she asked.
“We will search for your uncle,” Talil said. “If we do not find him we must find a place to stay and get food and rest.”
“We will not have any problems with my uncle's fishing spear,” she said. “He will spear all the food for us that we need. It is a magic spear and it is irresistable,”
“What magic metal is such a spear made of.” Talil asked. He enjoyed her fantasies. He needed the distraction now.
“He says it is a part of his body that comes from his soul, a spear that only a man can wield, a magic spear that was given to him by the gods and attached to him by the gods. I have seen him wield it many times,” she said.
Something about the way she said this gave Talil pause and caused a knot to grow hard in his throat. He did not want to ask but he did. “Did your uncle ever hurt you? With the magic spear?”
“He blessed all the women with the spear in the night,” she said. “He tests his spear on the women to see if it is sharp and if they bleed. But when I did not bleed like the other girls he told me he was journeying north to sharpen his spear to catch more fish for us.”
The desert night felt colder than ever now and Talil felt nauseous. Then behind them the sound of hoofbeats, faster than camels, the pounding of sand in the darkness. Talil imagined the purple – sheathed horses with their riders and thought of the gardens in the center of the city and the trees and the bodies hanging there. Nikil. Nikil had sent for them in the night to catch them in the desert where they would never be found. They would count the girl as an adultress. It had been a trap all along.
The edge of lake Marhari was in sight. Small groves of olive trees clustered around its edges. “Come now,” he said, and roped their camel behind one of the thickest branches. “We must listen for the locusts that gather by the lake,” he said. “Perhaps we will hear the dragons and your mother here. You must be very quiet if you want to hear them. ”
He put his body over hers in the dark, his heart pounding. She was silent. He had made no plan for her. He had been thinking of nothing except himself. The men in purple were everywhere now. They would be at the Marhari village. They would be waiting for them if they returned. The whole world was men gone mad, purple shrouded men and generals, each one sneering to rise above the other and destroy all the goodness that was left. Everything he had done was foolish. They would find out she was pregnant and they would destroy her and leave her body hanging in the garden for the birds to eat.
Perhaps she was lying, or mistaken, or it was a fantasy. It would not matter. They would both swing from the rope in the city center by morning. If they did not kill her she would be a slave.
The beats of horses were reasonating everywhere through the desert and he could not tell how close they were but they sounded almost on top of them. Quickly he reached into his satchel. He was still carrying the red herbs from the day before from the city wall. He thought of the men with purple sheaths carrying the girl away into the night.
“Eat these quickly,” he told the girl, “and you will fly with your mother among the locusts.”
“I would like to see mother and the locusts,” she said.
“Then eat now and you will,” he said. She chewed the blood-red herbs and closed her eyes in his arms.
I am so sorry that men like me could not create a world for you, for women, Talil thought. He thought about her brown hair and eyes and about Elise and about how terribly weak he was, how weak all men were. They had declared peace and brought hell to the city. But he would give her peace now. Any death was better than the life awaiting her there.
The hoofbeats went by on the other side of the water, far away. Talil held the girl for a long time, watching the silent moon overhead.
When he was sure the horses had passed he bathed her still body in the lake and washed her. He buried her in the sand by the water.
He said the traditional mourning prayer over her body which he had not said for Elise. Talil said it in the old language, the forbidden language.
Elise, he said over her. Elise, of my memory, my lost one.
When the sun rose he left on the camel for Marhari, determined to find and kill Kalid.